It’s no secret that the world of Formula One is a rarified one. Just ask any of the 20 drivers on the grid just how tough it was getting their hands onto the steering wheel of one of the fastest cars on the planet.
One has to give full credit, then, to 28-year-old Naomi Schiff – a relatively new member of the Sky TV F1 team – who has so elegantly turned a successful motor racing career into a new life as an F1 presenter and analyst. Naomi’s break into the world of F1 presenting began last year, and it’s not an opportunity she takes for granted. “I’ve been on a journey to get somewhere my whole life, and for so long I didn’t know where it was going. Then, last year I really felt like I had landed where I was supposed to be,” she says.
Naomi was born in Belgium but grew up in Sandton, South Africa, and it is here that the racing bug first bit. After a karting birthday party at the age of 11, she took up the sport full time and eventually followed her dreams to Europe where she carved a successful career in the challenging world of motor racing. This culminated in a place on the grid at the W Series that had been launched alongside Formula One in 2019 to create equal opportunities for female motor racers. By 2020, Naomi had taken on the role of diversity and inclusion ambassador for the W Series, but financial challenges have beset the all-woman championship and its future seems uncertain.
As with so many sports people who have been inspired by seven-time F1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, it was his career that set the tone for Naomi’s ambitions. She has shared the story of how, at the age of 14, herself and some classmates bunked school to watch Lewis race in a promotional event at the Kyalami Racetrack in 2010. Even though they couldn’t get in, she will never forget the moment Lewis came over to the fence to speak to them.
Many years later, Lewis continues to play an important role as an ally to Naomi. “When I was in W Series, he would share pictures of me as much as he could on his profile. He’s always said he wants to reach back and bring people forward, and I definitely felt that. Allyship is important for women in this sport, and to have that with someone who is at the top of the sport as I have with Lewis – I feel really, really lucky.”
It was also Lewis who came to Naomi’s defence last year when a troll tried to derail her rapid rise as a race analyst by calling her expertise into question. Happily, the naysayers’ opinions didn’t find any traction and this year Naomi was offered a much larger role in Sky TV coverage of F1 – we can expect to see her presenting and analysing between 12 and 16 of this year’s 24 F1 races.
One of them was this year’s Monaco Grand Prix – Naomi’s favourite race on the calendar. This was the first time Naomi experiencesd the F1 race in the most glamorous of cities. “Obviously for the drivers this is the ultimate race to drive and to win. In terms of the atmosphere and how spectacular an event it is, it’s the pinnacle of the race calendar,” she says. Naomi truly experienced the glamorous side of things, hosting a Q&A with the current world champion Max Verstappen and fellow Red Bull driver Sergio Pérez on the TAG Heuer Yacht.
Even though her motor racing career has taken a new direction, Naomi is still passionate about promoting women in motorsport and believes we will one day see a woman behind the wheel of an F1 car. However, a lot still needs to change in terms of development amongst female drivers. “That’s why the W Series and F1 Academy are so important – it’s showing the world this is a sport for women too. We need women to have equality as well as parity; the same level of opportunity consistently throughout their careers,” she says. Naomi feels her voice can make a difference in bringing opportunity to the world of sport for Africa too.
A Crawford College and Wits alumni, she now lives in Paris and spends most of her time on the road travelling to far-flung F1 destinations. Naomi still visits South Africa at least once a year – this year she’ll be here three times. She met her partner here and feels very much at home down south. “I love South Africa – it’s my favourite place in the world and I come back as often as I can.”
Naomi always kicks off a trip back home with a nostalgic drive past her old school and a chocolate croissant at Fournos or a visit to Tasha’s in Morningside. She loves the bush and makes a beeline for the Pilanesberg whenever possible.
When she heard that the South African Grand Prix that had been mooted for 2023 was off the table, Naomi was heartbroken, but she believes it may still happen. “I have high hopes that there will be an African Grand Prix in some shape or form. Formula E was a good starting point, but it’s such a difficult time for Formula One to be trying to come to South Africa because the sport is booming and they have so many big offers. I don’t know if South Africa was potentially not in a financial space to be able to do it. I just hope they’ll realise how important it is to have a race on every continent,” she says. “I definitely feel a sense of responsibility to talk about this because there aren’t many of us in the room to talk from the perspective that I can. There are people in the F1 ecosystem that care about having an African Grand Prix, but I only have a small voice, and for it to happen there are going to have to be some of the bigger voices,” Naomi adds.
In just one year, Naomi’s life has seen massive changes. Does she ever see herself returning to racing? She says she is incredibly grateful that her career path now provides her with financial stability in the sport that she loves, and it feels like she has come full circle. “But I don’t want to say that I’m retired – once a racing driver, always a racing driver.”
NAOMI AND CARS
Which is your dream F1 car to race? “I’d be foolish not to say a Red Bull. They clearly have a car that is dominant, and I believe they are still holding back their true full potential.”
Dream racing rival: “Probably Lewis. There is so much to learn from him, not only his driving ability, but also his character. I would learn quickly from his patience – he is so calm in the car.”
Your first car: “A VW Polo”
Current favourite mode of transport: “An electric scooter – which has sadly been banned in Paris.”
Dream car: “Porsche 911 Turbo S 992.”
Dream family car: “Mercedes-AMG G63.”
Car colour: “Black, always.”